“Hello. We’re TV actors.” Those words, spoken by Rainn Wilson as he stood alongside Blake Lively at the 2009 Golden Globes, were enough to incite several seconds of hearty laughter from the Hollywood crowd. And while it may seem harmless, the remark and the reaction demonstrate one important stigma in the acting industry — some people think TV actors are a joke.

Peter Krause? Bradley Whitford? January Jones? Oh, they’re just TV actors. No big deal. They’re not special like Christian Bale or Natalie Portman. Those are the real actors. They’re in movies. Those actors on the small-screen are only there because they’re not good/famous/pretty enough for the cutthroat competition of Hollywood movies. No, they just have to be content wallowing in their 30-60 minute time-slot, making considerably less money and enjoying less fame.

Maybe no one states it quite so explicitly, but there tends to be this attitude pervading the world of media-junkies that TV actors are of a lesser caliber than movie stars. TV is viewed as a stepping stone to better gigs. And there’s some truth to that. TV actors aren’t paid as much as those who appear in films and they generally don’t grace the “Star Watch” section of People magazine. But that doesn’t make them inferior — just different.

Actors working on a movie usually have a few months to film their scenes. “Pirates of the Caribbean” was filmed in five months. Five months spent on one project where the actors probably weren’t called to set for half of the scheduled film days. Most TV actors stay on for an entire season, appearing in every episode, and each episode takes a week or more to film. The first season of “Lost” also took five months to film, but in the end there was 1068 minutes of aired footage. “Pirates” had a run time of 143 minutes. TV acting is hard. It’s time-consuming and the pay-off isn’t always great.

According to TV Guide, Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” makes $75,000 per episode, making his season’s earnings about $975,000. Forbes reports Leonardo DiCaprio’s paycheck for “Inception” was more than $50 million. Both “Inception” and “Mad Men” are critically acclaimed works of art and both salaries are beyond anything I could ever hope to earn, but there is a huge discrepancy between them. Hamm has filmed 49 episodes and still hasn’t reached a quarter of DiCaprio’s “Inception” money. So it’s reasonable to think that actors would only take TV gigs if they had to.

But think of all the incredibly talented TV actors out there. Hamm, Nathan Fillion, Tina Fey and Terry O’Quinn are all amazing actors who could make the jump to movies any time they wanted to. And some have. Some actors do use TV as a stepping stone to movies, but a lot of actors come back to it too. TV acting has its advantages and provides challenges not normally available in the world of film.

The beauty of the television serial is that the characters can be much more complex and developed than those in movies. This gives actors a chance to get to know a character and portray them more dynamically than they ever would be able to in a film. There is time to understand who you’re playing, to explore your character’s ups and downs, to guide them through the dark moments and to celebrate the victories.

As viewers, we have a whole season to get to know and care about the characters on TV. Moviegoers only spend a few hours with the big-screen characters, and come to forget many. We establish relationships with the TV characters, inviting them into our living rooms each week. We see them regularly, and because of that, they become a little more accessible to us. TV actors aren’t presented for us to worship on a 30-foot screen. They don’t grace us with their talent only once each year. People on TV just seem much more real.

So while the stigma of TV acting may not be totally unfounded, I beg the film snobs to lay off. It’s arguably harder to act for the small-screen and clearly the gig doesn’t pay as well. TV actors are the unsung heroes of the acting biz. They do it out of love for the medium, the story and the character, and that’s something worth admiring.

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